Official Israel has been unusually silent on one of the most important events affecting its international affairs: the forthcoming referendum on the future of the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union. The Netanyahu government’s uncharacteristic reticence — formally justified as an unwillingness to interfere in the domestic affairs of another country — can hardly explain the lack of Israeli public interest in this extraordinary plebiscite. Brexit’s consequences for Israel are immense.
Several days after the horrendous assassination of pro-EU activist and Labour Party MP Jo Cox and just before Britons go to the polls — it is high time for Israelis to weigh in. For them, a UK withdrawal from Europe would be nothing short of earthshattering. Broad Israeli interests on all sides of the political spectrum militate strongly for Britain’s continued membership in the European body.
Four key considerations inform such a stance. The first, and most obvious, is economic. Pundits commenting on the referendum in the financial pages of the Hebrew-language press have been virtually unanimous in highlighting the detrimental economic ramifications for Israel of a British exit — given that the UK is Israel’s second largest trading partner by country after the United States. On the most immediate level, such a move would depreciate the value of the pound sterling (estimates lie somewhere between 15% and 30%), making Israeli products far more expensive and consequently adversely affecting exports to the UK. It would also block the accessibility of Israeli companies registered in London (and currently benefiting from the “single passport” policy) to European markets.
The indirect effects may be even more significant: a post-exit UK would not be bound to EU agreements with Israel. In shopping around for new partnerships, it might not only favor other countries in the Middle East at Israel’s expense, but also upset European markets, thus further undermining Israel’s economic prospects. Indeed, the economic downside of a British pullback is so compelling that even exit voices within the UK have sought to downplay these aspects of the issue, focusing instead on other, more nationalist, arguments.
From an Israeli perspective, the second factor in supporting the “remain” position is, indeed, political. On the bilateral front, David Cameron, a staunch ally of Israel, might be forced to resign by “out” proponents within his own Conservative party should he come out on the short end of the ballot. Any successor, from whatever political party, would likely be less sympathetic to outside overtures — including those of Israel. On a far larger scale, British detachment from Europe would severely compromise Israel’s position on the continent. For years, successive UK prime ministers have acted as a bridge between Israel and Brussels. They have been particularly open to hearing Israeli long-term concerns and have a strong record of facilitating Israeli agreements with other members of the EU. Their absence from continental forums in the name of a newly-asserted national self-sufficiency would not work to Israel’s benefit, especially since this step might give a signal for other countries to follow suit.
This concern, shared by many countries in the democratic world, has special resonance for Israel, since in its case it also introduces a third element into play: the repercussions of Brexit on the Israeli-Palestinian nexus. UK policy on the conflict, while clearly upholding a two-state solution, has been among the most constructive of EU members. Should Britons vote to detach themselves from the continental framework, Israel would not only lose one of its most dependable allies; it may find the post-exit leadership much less amenable to its entreaties.
Unfortunately, some Israelis prefer to punish the European Union for its supposedly anti-Israeli positions, rather than deal with the far more destructive aftermath of its partial dismemberment. “Regavim,” a settler movement co-founded by Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich, has come out with a social network campaign favoring Brexit under the slogan of “Support Israel — Leave Europe,” arguing that such a move would punish the EU for its backing of the Palestinian cause. Following such a course of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face would harm Israel more.
This leads directly to the fourth — and ultimately the most important — reason for Israelis to back the “remain” forces: a special concern for maintaining the fundamental democratic values of pluralism and tolerance for diversity, in the face of the rising wave of xenophobic nationalism sweeping through large parts of Europe (now best manifest in the “leave” camp in the UK). The opposition to additional migration, the self-enclosure it encourages, and the discrimination it foments are the outward signs of much deeper currents that have always been associated with growing anti-Semitism and racial intolerance.
These are not empty words. Tellingly, the leaders of ultra-nationalist parties in Europe met in Vienna this past weekend to voice their support for Brexit. Under the guise of protecting European civilization, Eurosceptic political figures such as Marine Le Pen of France and Hainz-Christian Strache of Austria spoke out forcefully against the EU in the name of homogeneity and locale-patriotism. Harking on growing insecurity and capitalizing on the uncertainty in its wake, they are fueling new forms of isolation that have never passed over Jews nor avoided singling out Israel. It therefore goes against the grain of Jewish history and Jewish values to give a boost to the latter-day successors of those elements who were responsible for the persecution of Jews in the past.
Those Israelis worried about the tide of ethno-nationalism domestically cannot ignore the message emanating from its counterparts abroad. A strong commitment to liberal democratic values for all Israelis means defying retrogressive trends elsewhere. Standing with the Bremainers gives a boost to precisely those norms of equality and justice that made Israel possible in the first instance and have sustained it (despite recent setbacks) to this very day.
The citizens of the United Kingdom — and only they — will determine the outcome of this Thursday’s referendum. Their future lies in their own hands and they will be the ones to live with the main consequences of their decision. But they will not be the only ones. The shockwaves of an exit will affect people throughout the globe, including Israelis. They are not just curious spectators standing passively on the sidelines as the match unfolds. Nothing can be further from the truth. They should have preferences and air them publically. That is what being a part of the global community not only implies but also demands. At least for this Israeli, Brexit is neither good for the UK, for Europe, for the international community—nor for Israel.